Following a recent article about HIV among ‘old’ people in Tanzania which I discussed a short while back, another article has appeared about an increase in HIV among people over 50, this time from Gauteng, South Africa. Prevalence in Gauteng is high, though it is not the highest in the country. The article concentrates, as is customary for articles about HIV, on sexually transmitted HIV, noting ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, in addition to ‘caring for infected children’.
However the apparent lack of concern older people are said to feel about being infected, along with their ‘ignorance’ which the authors note, may stem from the fact that people in this age group do not engage in as much ‘unsafe’ sex as imagined, that the sex they engage in may not be as ‘unsafe’ as imagined, and that they may face many non-sexual risks as a result of not being informed about these; constant emphasis of sexual transmission and under-emphasis of non-sexual transmission doesn’t help either.
Are the researchers even aware that every skin piercing procedure could be a risk, not just reused injecting and other equipment, but also reused cosmetic instruments (tattooing, piercing, shaving) and reused instruments in traditional practices (traditional medicine, scarification, circumcision)? If older people do not, as the authors suggest, see themselves as being at risk of being infected with HIV, perhaps this is because the non-sexual risks they face through caring for HIV positive people, and risks they face themselves in healthcare, cosmetic and other facilities, have rarely been addressed by HIV intervention programs.
The most worrying aspect of this paper is that it is assumed that sex is the only, or the biggest risk, for HIV. This means that non-sexual risks, which may increase in older people who may have greater healthcare needs, are given so little attention that people do things which they don’t even realize are a risk. Worse still, those providing healthcare, cosmetic and traditional procedures may not realize the risks, or they may be a lot less vigilant in their day to day activities.
Despite the emphasis the authors put on sexual transmission, “using the same needles or sharp objects” was mentioned by at least one of the interviewees. Also, two traditional healers were among those interviewed and seemed aware of their risk to themselves, but not the risk that their clients face, which may be a lot higher. But the use of ‘protective clothing’ by those caring for HIV positive people is far too vague to be of any practical value. What about mentioning skin piercing procedures, needlestick injuries, reuse of needles, syringes, razors and other skin piercing instruments?
This seems to be another missed opportunity to address the substantial non-sexual risks people face from infection with HIV and other bloodborne diseases through skin piercing procedures, whether carried out for medical, cosmetic or traditional reasons. Older people, the subject of this paper, and others around them, may face increased risks from skin piercing procedures, especially those found in health facilities. Instead, the authors obsess about the purported sexual behavior of South African people and fail to make any recommendations about reducing non-sexual HIV transmission.